In case you weren't floating around the NBA Internet last week, James Harden's defense was exposed for what it has been ever since he was traded to the Houston Rockets. Choose whatever word you like -- lazy, inattentive, etc. -- but it's nothing new. It's only now that we've thought enough to cut up video or post GIFs of his awful ball-watching tendencies. (For more on the team's awful defense against the Lakers, read Jason Patt's piece from Friday).
Certainly, there's no excuse for Harden's lack of effort. When you add public humiliation to the likely constant cajoling of the Rockets' coaching staff, there's plenty of motivation for him to improve.
The scarier thing for the 4-3 Rockets, losers of three of four since a 3-0 start, is that their defensive issues go much deeper than Harden. If it was simply a matter of convincing their established max-contract star that further superstardom won't come until he improves his effort, the fix would be easy. But Harden's hardly the only one struggling, and there's a lot for the coaching staff to clean up if Houston wants to grow into a championship contender this season.
The issues extend to all of the Rockets' perimeter defenders. Chandler Parsons has better defensive tools than Harden, but suffers from the same lack of concentration, particularly off the ball. Jeremy Lin has shown flashes, but still gets smushed by screens too easily and is too slow to contain the quick ball-handlers of the league. Patrick Beverley has all the tools and the willingness to stick his nose in there, but he's treating too many possessions like one-on-one matchups, often to the detriment of the help defense behind him.
Worse, whether due to scheme or poor execution (likely the latter), the Rockets don't seem to have a plan for containing pick and rolls, particularly on the side. Most teams correctly force those plays to the baseline because it removes so many of the ball-handler's options. If he is allowed to get to the middle, he can see the entire floor, allowing him to pick out any open shooter or get to the rim. If he's forced to the sideline, though, the defense can use the sideline as an extra defender, and the ball-handler only has a couple passes that he can make.
The Rockets, though, constantly allow ball-handlers to get to the middle. This sequence in Saturday's home loss to the Clippers illustrates the problem:
This is a pick and roll being defended by Beverley and Omer Asik, the two Rockets with the best defensive reputations on the team. But rather than get into Chris Paul's hip and force him sideline, Beverley comes to Paul's right in transition, making it easy for Paul to get to the middle on this Blake Griffin screen. When that happens, Paul has unlimited options. J.J. Redick is his outlet, Jared Dudley is camped in the corner and DeAndre Jordan is prepared to roll to the rim if his man, Dwight Howard, needs to provide extra support. Most importantly, Griffin has a clear lane to roll or fade to the right side of the court. Too much is being asked of Asik here, who must contain the ball-handler while preventing Griffin from getting an easy pass and finish.
This is what happens:
Worried about Griffin, Asik doesn't completely corral Paul, allowing him to get middle. Howard, playing Jordan, shades over to stop Paul instead, and as he does that, Jordan zips down the lane for the alley-oop dunk. This entire chain reaction resulted because Beverley didn't force Paul to the baseline and got easily screened off by Griffin, taking him completely out of the play. Had Beverley done his job, Paul would have been pinned on the baseline, Griffin wouldn't have as much space to roll and Howard wouldn't have been forced to help off Jordan to contain Paul's drive.
Here's Lin making the same error earlier in the week against the same Clippers team. This time, Paul dribbled right, none of the bigs helped and he was able to get to the rim for the layup.
And here's Beverley again trying to play his man straight up, which only causes him to be run into a vicious double screen that yields Darren Collison a wide-open jumper.
These are communication and concentration errors that show up in other areas. Transition defense, for one, is a major issue because Houston's wings are often either not getting back or struggling to match up. Harden is the biggest culprit, but again, he's not the only one.
This sequence illustrates the little ways poor concentration hurts Houston. To the naked eye, it looks like a simple sequence: missed shot, transition pickup, great play by Paul and a foul drawn.
But a closer look shows the ways Parsons hurt the Rockets. First, he's in an upright stance admiring Lin's jumper instead of fully getting back behind the half-court line.
Then, he compounds his error with a bad gamble in the open floor, which only occurred because he hadn't already dropped back.
The gamble is somewhat understandable, since Jordan has run behind the defense, but it could have been avoided with better positioning. Now, the Rockets are in trouble. If Parsons gets the steal, he's a hero, but if not, he's messing things up for his teammates because he's taken himself out of the play. Lin must now pick up Jamal Crawford, Beverley has to account for Collison and Harden has to pick up the taller Jordan. Parsons' only play is to guard Chris Paul, which is a mismatch.
All these cross-matches confuse the Rockets. Look at Beverley in this screenshot.
As those two are confused on the back end, Paul and Griffin run a pick and roll. Parsons and Howard play it poorly, and Harden, who definitely doesn't belong as the help defender in the back, is late to rotate.
Griffin ends up getting inside and drawing Howard's fifth foul.
This whole chain reaction happens because Parsons (and also, Lin and Harden, to be fair) don't get back when they should, causing Parsons to gamble in the open floor, which in turn causes the Rockets' defensive matchups to get screwed up, which in turn causes confusion when trying to defend a standard pick and roll. If Parsons makes the less glamorous play and simply drops back to halfcourt as he should, none of that happens.
This is part of the maturation process for all Rockets perimeter defenders. They are certainly capable of being competent and even elite defenders -- Harden can give more effort, Parsons has all the tools, Lin is sturdy and Beverley has a well-deserved reputation as a pest -- but they need to concentrate and do their jobs every possession. There are times when the Rockets will properly force a play to the sideline or make a great effort on a closeout and you wonder why it doesn't happen more often. But then you realize that, as cliche as it sounds, defense is something that needs to be executed every possession, every play.
This problem is fixable and also somewhat understandable given all the new parts on the roster, but it's also not only going to be solved with time. All Rockets perimeter defenders will need to step up if Houston is to achieve its championship dreams.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
We take a look at one player each week that is either struggling or has displayed strong skill development.
Maybe Donald Sterling was right. Maybe it was a huge mistake for the Clippers to trade Eric Bledsoe.
Seven games in, and it's clear the Phoenix Suns' point guard is close to becoming one of the game's premier point guards. He's put every concern that he did not have the necessary polish to be a starting point guard to rest, displaying improved range, sharp change of speed ability and the kind of next-level craftiness that make you wonder if you're watching him or his mentor, Chris Paul.
What's changed? Most importantly, he's attacking space with more confidence. During his cup of coffee running the Clippers last year when Paul was injured, teams played way off him on the pick and roll, and Bledsoe was often reluctant or unable to capitalize. He'd often come off these plays very casually and not be ready to do anything that would really threaten the defense. Note this ugly-looking floater, for example:
Alternatively, he'd try to attack the rim too quickly, making a mad dash that his team wasn't ready for him to do. The end result would be Bledsoe stuck underneath the rim without any outlet. Notice how he takes off quickly here even though the lane is cramped.
He's decided to drive quickly, even though his teammates are not properly spaced. That allows Minnesota to trap him and force this pass. Had Bledsoe attacked by changing speeds here, he could have manipulated the defense enough to find an opening.
That has changed significantly this season. When given space, Bledsoe is changing speeds instead of either going too casually or all out. These are moves he would not have been able to make last year.
And this is a jumper he would not have attempted confidently last season.
The key to Bledsoe's improvement is his improved footwork and body position. Every step he takes now is useful; there's no more choppiness and wasted motions. When he needs to cover long distances, he takes long strides. When he has to move in short spots to confuse the defense, he takes small steps.
And it's striking now how low he gets his body to the ground on every drive. Look at the contrast between this screenshot from last March ...
... to this one from last Friday.
Bledsoe's able to maintain that stance throughout moves now, which allows him to do two things. For one, it makes those hesitation moves that much more difficult to defend. You telegraph your move if you stand upright and then try to get low; you disguise it when you're always bending you knees. For another, it makes it much easier to get the proper lift on pull-up jumpers, as you see in the above GIF. Last year, Bledsoe attempted what looked like set shots off the pick and roll. This year, he's taking legitimate jumpers while stepping in with confidence.
There's also a new level of craftiness to Bledsoe's game that you saw in flashes in the past, but not this consistently. This move to sneak by Anthony Davis, then jump into him to take away his shot-blocking and draw the foul, is one you'd expect Paul to make, not Bledsoe.
And this delayed transition break, where Bledsoe dribble probed slowly and eventually found an open shooter, is a far cry from the attack-at-all-costs mentality that Bledsoe illustrated in his Clippers tenure.
It all comes back to the improved footwork and body positioning, which you see again in that last clip. Bledsoe appears to have gained a ton of strength in the offseason, which not only allows him to finish in the lane, but also lets him stay low to the ground. The effect? All these hesitation moves and confident jumpers are now possible.
It's still early, of course. Teams will adjust to this new Bledsoe by forcing him to shoot pull-up jumpers. It also helps that the Suns are committed to running and properly spacing the floor with shooters. But if this indeed is the new Eric Bledsoe, a max contract will soon be coming his way.
SACRIFICE OF THE WEEK
There are so many pieces to a play's puzzle that don't show up in the box score. We'll highlight one such piece each week in this section.
Since we spent so much time talking about the importance of keeping pick and rolls out of the middle, let's shout out this effort from the Hawks' DeMarre Carroll in forcing Nate Robinson, a much quicker player, to the baseline.
Foul? Maybe, but the refs will usually give the defender the benefit of the doubt if they beat their man to the spot like this.
10 other observations from the week that was.
- It's way too early to panic about the Nets, especially since three of their four losses have come by a combined 13 points, but if they are to go anywhere serious this year, they need more from Deron Williams. This is not a team that has many threats to get into the lane, whether by a dribble-drive or a hard dive to the rim on a pick and roll, so they need Williams to attack. Problem is, he's either still injured or simply lacks confidence to finish in the paint. These two plays illustrate Williams' problem. He has a chance to attack in both situations, but settled for jumpers.
- Minnesota's early success is encouraging, but it's interesting that the Timberwolves have closed so many games without Nikola Pekovic on the floor. It's a tiny sample, but the Timberwolves are outscoring opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions with Pekovic on the bench, per NBA.com's media-only stats page, and are being outscored by 2.1 points per 100 possessions with Pekovic in the game. (Note: numbers don't include Sunday's game). Kevin Love in particular has been much more effective when paired with Dante Cunningham than Pekovic this season. It's too early to draw definitive conclusions, but the Love/Pekovic combo has struggled to defend in previous years together as well.
- In happier Timberwolves news, it's beautiful to see the marriage between Love, the league's best outlet passer, and Corey Brewer, the league's best lane-filler on the break. (Watch this glorious play, would you?). It all starts with something that's becoming much more common league-wide: Brewer, a wing, leaking out instead of going for a defensive rebound. You can see the beginning stages of this happening in this screenshot. It'll be interesting to see data on the effectiveness of Brewer's strategy. Does it help a team increase fast breaks more than it hurts it on the defensive glass?
- Good stuff from Welcome to Loud City on the chemistry of the Thunder's improved bench.
- The Grizzlies picked it up later in the week, but their defense still hasn't approached last year's levels yet. Grizzly Bear Blues does good work in pointing out common errors that Dave Joerger's group didn't make last year. Memphis' offense isn't exactly in a great place either: look at the awful spacing on this play in their blowout loss to the Pelicans on Wednesday.
- The Magic, by contrast, faltered later in the week, but had a fantastic defensive gameplan to beat the Clippers on Wednesday. Rather than force their big men to venture away from the middle, the Magic let him stand in the paint, even if it meant gift-wrapping open jumpers to Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford. Orlando made the trade-off many teams are making now -- that mid-range shots are better to yield than layups or threes -- but took it to an extreme. Will we see more teams play like this? (Orlando Pinstriped Post has quotes from Jacque Vaughn and other players on the strategy).
- Andre Drummond is going to be a great player one day, but for now, he has to learn how to maintain leverage. Roy Hibbert should not be getting this deep on this play. Drummond also has problems fighting through cross-screens, which he needs to clean up. He's too big and strong to be wiped out by guards.
- In case you're wondering how the Celtics got Jeff Green open on that unbelievable play to end the Celtics' shocking win over the Heat on Saturday, Celtics Blog broke it down beautifully.
- The good news about DeAndre Jordan's start? He's rolling harder to the rim than he ever has, which is especially important given all the shooting the Clippers have on the wing. His dive to the rim here gave Jared Dudley the lane he needed to attack. The bad news about DeAndre Jordan's start? He's still committing defensive breakdowns in the back and rebounds with his leaping instead of with his body. For example, note this blown box out in Thursday's loss to the Heat.
- This is what happens when Andrea Bargnani is your defensive anchor.